image depicting a covert narcissist in a therapy session

Can a Covert Narcissist Fool a Therapist? (What to Know)

Covert narcissists can indeed pose challenges in a therapeutic setting.

Their tendency to be less obvious in their narcissism compared to the more overt types makes them harder to diagnose.

Here are some key points to consider:

Charming and Deceptive Behavior

Covert narcissists are often adept at presenting themselves as charming, likable, or even vulnerable.

This can mislead not just therapists but anyone interacting with them.

Lying to Therapists

Yes, they can and often do lie or manipulate truths to present themselves in a better light.

This is part of their defense mechanism to maintain a façade of normalcy or superiority.

Diagnosis Challenges

Diagnosing narcissism, especially the covert type, can be difficult.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) itself is a complex and often misunderstood condition.

Covert narcissists might not display the grandiosity or obvious need for admiration that’s typical in classical narcissism, making it harder for therapists to recognize the disorder.

Therapeutic Techniques

Experienced therapists might use various techniques to understand the deeper layers of a person’s personality.

This includes looking for inconsistencies in their stories, understanding their history and relationship patterns, and observing how they react to different therapeutic interventions.

Self-Awareness and Disclosure

The effectiveness of therapy also depends on the individual’s willingness to be introspective and honest.

If a covert narcissist is in denial or unwilling to explore their deeper issues, therapy can be limited in its effectiveness.

Long-Term Therapy

Often, it takes prolonged engagement in therapy for a therapist to see through the façade of a covert narcissist.

Over time, patterns of behavior, attitudes toward others, and reactions to various situations can reveal more about their narcissistic tendencies.

Collateral Information

Sometimes therapists might rely on collateral information from family members, friends, or significant others to get a fuller picture, especially if they suspect personality disorders like NPD.

What Kind of Therapeutic Techniques Do Therapists Use to Determine That Someone is a Covert Narcissist?

Identifying covert narcissism in therapy can be challenging due to the subtle and often hidden nature of the traits associated with this condition.

However, therapists use a variety of techniques to assess and understand the potential presence of covert narcissism:

Clinical Interview

The primary tool is a detailed clinical interview where the therapist asks about the client’s history, relationships, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors.

The way a person describes their interactions with others and their responses to various life situations can provide clues.

Behavioral Observation

Therapists observe the client’s behavior, both within and outside of therapy sessions (if possible).

They pay attention to patterns of behavior, how the client relates to the therapist, and their reactions to different topics or challenges.

Psychological Testing

Certain psychological tests and questionnaires can help in assessing narcissistic traits.

Instruments like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) or the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI) are often used.

These tests must be interpreted carefully, as individuals with covert narcissism might not always openly endorse narcissistic traits.

Projective Tests

Tests like the Rorschach Inkblot Test or Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) can be used.

These tests are designed to uncover unconscious thoughts and feelings and can sometimes reveal aspects of personality that are not evident in direct interviews.

Analysis of Relationship Patterns

Therapists often explore the client’s past and present relationships.

Covert narcissists may have a history of troubled relationships, marked by manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or victimhood.

Consistency in Self-Reporting

A therapist might look for inconsistencies in the client’s self-reporting over time.

Covert narcissists might change their stories or contradict themselves, which can be a red flag.

Reaction to Criticism and Failure

Covert narcissists may react negatively to criticism or perceived failures.

Observing how a client handles these situations can provide insights into their personality.

Countertransference Awareness

Therapists must be aware of their own reactions to the client.

Covert narcissists can evoke strong emotional reactions in therapists, which can be a clue to their underlying narcissistic traits.

Collateral Information

Gathering information from people close to the client (with consent) can provide additional perspectives on the client’s behavior and relationships.

Exploring Self-Esteem and Vulnerabilities

Covert narcissists often have issues with self-esteem and may present as vulnerable or self-deprecating.

Therapists explore these aspects to understand if they mask deeper narcissistic tendencies.


It’s important to note that these techniques are not used in isolation but rather in combination to form a comprehensive understanding of the individual.

Additionally, a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, or any personality disorder, is complex and made with caution, typically over several sessions.

The goal of therapy is not just to label, but to understand and help the client with their struggles and growth.

How Do Therapists Inform a Client of Covert Narcissism?

When informing a client about the possibility of covert narcissism, therapists typically approach the conversation with sensitivity and caution.

They focus on specific behaviors and patterns rather than labeling the client with a diagnosis directly.

The therapist might discuss observations about how the client’s behavior affects their relationships and daily life.

They will likely use examples from the client’s own experiences discussed in therapy to illustrate these patterns.

The goal is to encourage self-reflection and insight rather than to confront or blame.

Therapists often frame the conversation around how certain traits or behaviors, which align with covert narcissism, might be hindering the client’s well-being and relationships.

They also emphasize that the recognition of these patterns is a step towards positive change and personal growth.

Importantly, therapists strive to maintain an empathetic and non-judgmental tone, understanding that such revelations can be challenging for clients to hear and accept.

They provide support and reassurance, emphasizing the client’s capacity for change and the availability of therapeutic strategies to help manage and transform these behaviors.

Q&A – Can a Covert Narcissist Fool a Therapist?

What is a covert narcissist?

A covert narcissist is a person who exhibits traits of narcissism but in a less obvious and more internalized manner than the typical overt narcissist.

They often appear shy, modest, or even self-deprecating, but still harbor grandiose fantasies, a sense of entitlement, and a chronic need for validation and admiration.

Unlike overt narcissists, their narcissistic traits are not as immediately evident and may be well-hidden beneath a surface of apparent humility or vulnerability.

How can a covert narcissist behave in therapy sessions?

In therapy sessions, a covert narcissist might present themselves as a victim or as someone burdened by their own perceived inadequacies or life’s injustices.

They may seem more introverted, reserved, or emotionally sensitive.

However, they might also subtly manipulate conversations, show passive-aggressive behaviors, or react negatively to any form of criticism or perceived challenges to their self-esteem.

Their need for admiration and validation might be less apparent but can manifest in their expectations from the therapist or their reaction to the therapeutic process.

Are there specific signs a therapist looks for to identify a covert narcissist?

Yes, therapists look for specific signs such as a tendency to play the victim, hypersensitivity to criticism, passive-aggressive behavior, feelings of entitlement masked by self-deprecation, and an underlying sense of superiority.

Therapists also observe inconsistencies in their stories, their relationship patterns, especially a history of troubled relationships, and their reactions to different therapeutic interventions.

How does a covert narcissist’s behavior differ from other clients in therapy?

Unlike other clients who might seek therapy to genuinely understand and change their behaviors or emotional issues, covert narcissists may use therapy to seek validation or to further their narrative of victimhood.

Their responses to therapy may be less about introspection and more about manipulating the therapeutic environment to serve their emotional needs.

They might also be less willing to accept responsibility for their issues, instead blaming external circumstances or other people.

Can a covert narcissist successfully hide their true nature from a therapist?

It’s possible, especially in the short term.

Covert narcissists can be quite adept at masking their true nature, presenting themselves as the victim or as someone unjustly burdened.

However, over time and with skilled therapeutic intervention, it becomes more challenging for them to maintain this facade.

Experienced therapists can identify patterns of behavior and thought that suggest covert narcissism.

What challenges do therapists face when working with covert narcissists?

Therapists face several challenges such as:

  • establishing a genuine therapeutic relationship due to the client’s manipulative or passive-aggressive behaviors
  • dealing with the client’s resistance to introspection and change
  • managing their own emotional reactions to the client’s behavior (countertransference), and
  • differentiating between genuine emotional issues and narcissistic manipulation

The subtle nature of covert narcissism also makes it difficult to diagnose and treat effectively.

How long does it typically take for a therapist to recognize covert narcissistic traits?

The time it takes to recognize covert narcissistic traits can vary significantly.

It often depends on the frequency and duration of the therapy sessions, the therapist’s experience, and the individual’s willingness to be open in therapy.

In some cases, it may take several sessions or even longer for a pattern to become clear enough for a therapist to suspect covert narcissism.

Can psychological tests accurately identify covert narcissism?

Psychological tests, such as personality inventories and projective tests, can be helpful tools but they are not infallible.

These tests can provide insights into narcissistic traits, but the accuracy in identifying covert narcissism can be limited.

Covert narcissists might not openly endorse narcissistic traits on self-report measures, or they might not be fully aware of their own narcissistic tendencies.

Therefore, tests are used in conjunction with clinical observation and judgment.

What strategies do therapists use to uncover covert narcissistic behaviors?

Therapists use a variety of strategies including detailed clinical interviews, observing behavior over time, consistency checks in self-reporting, projective tests, and seeking collateral information from people close to the client.

They also monitor their own reactions to the client (countertransference) as a clue to the client’s underlying personality dynamics.

Additionally, therapists may gently challenge the client’s narratives to observe their reactions to criticism or differing viewpoints.

How effective is therapy in treating individuals with covert narcissism?

The effectiveness of therapy for individuals with covert narcissism varies.

It largely depends on the individual’s willingness to engage in honest self-reflection and to work on changing their behaviors and thought patterns.

Covert narcissists who are open to acknowledging their issues and committed to the therapeutic process can benefit from therapy.

However, those who remain in denial about their narcissism or who use therapy for validation rather than growth may find limited benefit.

Techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), schema therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can be particularly helpful.


While covert narcissists can fool therapists, especially in short-term interactions, experienced therapists using a range of techniques and observations over time may be able to identify narcissistic traits.

However, the effectiveness of therapy largely depends on the individual’s willingness to engage in honest self-reflection and change.

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